Saturday, December 18

Were There Three Magi?

Around Christmas time, we hear the account of the birth of Christ. Born to a virgin in the city of David, (Bethlehem) the baby is visited by three wise men. Alright, some may say, "I've heard it before." Regardless, there are a few common misconceptions about the Christmas Story - when the wise men/magi visited - and how many there were. (Photo credit to: Better Living Through Beowulf)

The account of the wise men can be found in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 2. The following text is what we know about the wise men, (NIV) "After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, 'Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.' When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him." (Matthew 2:1-3)

"When he had called together all the people's chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 'In Bethlehem in Judea,' they replied, 'for this is what the prophet has written:' ' But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the clans of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.' Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, 'Go and make careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.' " (Matthew 2:4-8)

"After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route." (Matthew 2:9-12)

Now that we have the account of the magi, traditionally wise men or kings, we may better determine the following: when did the magi visit Jesus, and how many were there? Also, does prophecy (which makes up 30% of the Bible, and ought not to be ignored but explored) say anything about these things? Verse 1 says, "After Jesus was born in Bethlehem," and verse 11 says, "On coming to the house..." Matthew seems to be indicating that Jesus, Mary and Joseph had been in Bethlehem long enough to find a house.

But there is more on this. Matthew 3:16, "When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi." (Emphasis added) We have already determined that Christ was visited by the Magi a while after his birth - these passages seem to indicate that Joseph, Mary, and Jesus had been living in Bethlehem for about two years. So the magi came to visit between the birth of Christ and the age of two.

Though their names and numbers are not explicitly stated in the Gospel, the wise men have become known as three wise men, named Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. First off, why the different names? Were they kings, wise men, or magi? 

The Greek word μαγοι (mάgoi) is translated as “wise men” in the NKJV, KJV, and ESV, whereas the NASB and the NIV translation use the word “magi.” Originally, the word typically referred to Persian wise men, (possibly priests) who were interpreters of special signs, especially astrology-wise. 

The belief that the magi were kings comes from a prophecy found in Isaiah 60:3, "Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn." Christians seem divided on whether these magi were Kings or not. Films such as The Nativity Story do portray these characters in that light - though at the same time portray the wise men visiting the night of his birth, and we know it could not have been the night of his birth.

Even if they arrived in Jerusalem the night of Christ's birth, it is a six mile journey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, so it would have been the next day at the latest. But it is assumed that the wise men came from Persia. There is a prophecy found in Psalm 72:10 which says, "May the kings of Tarshish and of distant shores bring tribute to him. May the kings of Sheba and Seba present him with gifts." This verse also seems to be referring to the wise men, though it is controversial, and some scholars do not believe it is referring to the wise men.

Regardless, these magi had most likely known of the prophecy of Balaam, "I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob, a scepter will rise out of Israel..." (Numbers 24:17a) It was most likely because of this prophecy, and perhaps the prophecies about the Messiah found in Isaiah that the magi knew a very special star would herald the birth of the Messiah, and that he would be born king of the Jews.

The view of having three wise men, magi, or kings, comes from the fact that three gifts were presented to Jesus at his house: Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh. Frankly, scholars are not sure how many magi there were. We know there were at least two, because when they are referred to in Matthew 2 and 3, it is with, "we," "they," the like. Therefore, we have determined that there were at least 2 magi, perhaps 3 or more with them, and that they came to visit Christ sometime after his birth.

Regardless of the number of magi or when they visited - we must not forget why we celebrate Christmas. We celebrate the birth of the Messiah, the entering of the Creator into his creation, to live a sinless life and become the sacrifice for us all, so that in him we may have life. I trust this entry has proven informative and insightful. Thank you for taking the time to read this entry. Feel free to comment below, email or visit the facebook page. Take care, and may God bless, dear reader. Troy Hillman


  1. Gentlemen,
    I am in disagreement of the statement that Jesus was living in Bethlehem when the magi came to visit. The scriptures do not really provide this as the TRUTH. Although it is a popular concept, it is not supported by scripture.
    How can I come to this conclusion?
    When developing a poem that combined the Matthew & Luke accounts of the birth of Christ in a timeline of events, it does not support the 2 years living in Bethlehem. I do agree with a 45 day to 2 year time difference, but not that the magi went to Bethlehem. They started that way under the direction of Herod's reply to them. But as they were leaving they were overjoyed when the star reappeared as you noted. But why such emotion, when they knew He was in Bethlehem? It is because in scripture it is supported that Jesus was not in Bethlehem, but in Nazareth. Dr. Luke describes in Luke 2:39 - 40: "And when they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord" (Law of Purification after giving birth is 40 days) "they retuned to Galilee, to their own city of Nazareth." Thus this puts Jesus in Nazareth during the timing of the visit of the magi and not Bethlehem! Thanks to Dr. Luke's detailed description of the events it puts the family returning to Nazareth. Then in Matthew's accounting we see in Matthew 2:10-12, the magi were led to Jesus when he was referred to as a child as you have discussed.
    The poem "HIStory, The Coming of the Prince of Peace" was written developing and merging the timelines together concerning the Matthew & Luke accounts of the Implementation of God's Plan. I've put the poem on my website:
    and I hope that you will take time to read it! If the Spirit had not led me to write this poem account of Jesus' birth, I would not have put any thought into this question of Bethlehem or Nazareth. Also, from this study I am developing a book of the same title, which I hope to have the publication completed by early 2011.
    You see I'm an unlikely person to do this, because I'm an electrical engineer by education and engineering sales and quality manager by occupation.
    There is more that could be discussed that substantiates this claim, but the over powering factor is that God sent His Son to reside with us and show us the way and in His life's sacrifice our total salvation!
    In His Service, Jasper Snellings

  2. Jasper, thank you very much for your comment. After carefully looking over and considering, I would agree, but I found a verse which seems to indicate that he did indeed live in Bethlehem. While it does not matter to me either way, I will provide the verse.

    Yes, we both know that the magi traveled to Jerusalem, and that the priests confirmed that he was born in Bethlehem, and that verse 1 confirmed, "After Jesus was born in Bethlehem..." Up to that point, the text does not indicate that Joseph, Mary and Jesus are still in Bethlehem. Now we look at verse 8. "He sent them to Bethlehem and said, 'Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him."

    So to this point, he sent them to Bethlehem. Does that indicate that Jesus, Mary and Joseph were still in Bethlehem? Let's keep going. "After they heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him."

    Now, bear with me. You had already pointed out that you believe the star led them to Nazareth. "When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream... 'take the child to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child and kill him.' So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod."

    The next part is what tends to get me. "When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magu, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi."

    Now, you may point out "and its vicinity." However, vicinity may not be referring to Nazareth, but the outskirts of Bethlehem. If Jesus, Joseph, and Mary were in Bethlehem, the angel had good reason to get up and leave, as that is what Herod ordered. But if he ordered Bethlehem - and they were in Nazareth, Herod would have had no reason to believe the baby was in Nazareth, because he was concerned about the Bethlehem prophecy regarding his birth in Bethlehem.

    Now, it is true that Luke 2:39-40 refers to them fulfilling the Law of the Lord. You pointed out the 40-day purification. But there is much more in the Law of the Lord, they may have stayed for longer.

    Regardless, where the magi visited him is a non-essential, but I am curious about this view. I can see where the text would support them returning to Nazareth, but I can also see where it would fit for him to remain in Nazareth. Allow me to reason for a moment.

    Perhaps it is because since birth I have been indoctrinated with the idea that there were three magi, that visited Christ the night of his birth in a stable. This year, having looked at the text, and checking it several times, understanding the misconceptions people have, I suppose I may have assumed Bethlehem. Therefore, as I have been raised with the magi visiting Jesus in Bethlehem, it would be hard for me to accept the visit of Nazareth, but if there is truth, a fool will remain in ignorance and claim his belief true when evidence points to the contrary.

    I did take a look, wonderful job, Jasper, I wish you the best in your endeavors, and I thank you for your input, sir. I'll be certain to investigate further. Thanks again - God bless!

  3. Having examined this several occasions since, I have concluded that indeed, Luke never indicates that the magi make their way to Bethlehem to see Jesus. The text indicates that Herod's men tell him that the Messiah is to be born in Bethlehem, and then Herod sends the magi to Bethlehem, but we are never told that they ever arrived, only that, on their way out, they saw the Star, which was over the house where Jesus was. As you noted, this was probably Nazareth.